Intermediate plateau – everyday struggles

As a language teacher I often deal with problems other subject teachers can easily ignore. Some of these problems are easy to handle, others are quite persistent. One of my greatest concerns at the moment is the difficulty a group of my students is having in making a transition from the intermediate to the upper-intermediate level of proficiency. I strongly believe these students have a cognitive capacity to reach a higher level, so I wonder why they feel they’re stuck. The fact that I have attended workshops and webinars to be better able to deal with the problem hasn’t helped a lot. Having read papers and articles related to this issue has been highly beneficial for me as a teacher, but it doesn’t prevent my students from struggling. The trouble is that my knowing about the problem is not the only prerequisite for finding a solution to it. It must be the students who realize that this struggle is an inevitable part of the learning process and that they need to persist in learning, even though they feel they’re not making the same leaps in progress that they used to make in the earlier stages of learning the language.

It’s not easy for me to infect my students with this optimistic prospect though. The problem is that if you feel you’re hopeless at something, it’s difficult for you to accept the fact that it may change someday just because other people tell you it will. You need to let this purely cognitive fact enter your emotional sphere to be able to deal with the situation. So students must experience the obstacles first and then start to believe that it’s in their power to overcome them. It also helps when they see others who have already achieved the goal. 
I’ve come across this interesting article describing the difficulties related to the problem of the intermediate plateau. This is how Jack C. Richards describes the features related to the phenomenon in his Moving Beyond the Plateau.
1) There is a gap between receptive and productive competence.
  • While learners’ receptive competence continues to develop, their productive competence remains relatively static.
  • Language items that learners recognize and understand in the input they hear do not pass into their productive competence.
2) Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity.
  • Learners’ language may be both relatively fluent and accurate but shows little evidence of appropriate grammatical development.
  • Complexity of learners’ language does not match their proficiency level.
3) Learners have a limited vocabulary range. 
  • Learners’ vocabulary development is still at the 3,000-word level.
  • Learners lack knowledge of collocational patterns.
4) Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech. 
  • Learners’ spoken English may be accurate and fluent but not always sound natural.
  • Learners’ spoken English lacks appropriate use of chunks and formulaic utterances.
5) There are persistent, fossilized language errors.
  • Errors of both grammar and pronunciation have become permanent features of learners’ speech.
  • Errors persist despite advances in learners’ communicative skills.
These are some of the problems I observe in my intermediate class. First of all, my students understand more than they can actually produce. This is fine until they fully realize this gap and start feeling frustrated. “I have learned English for so long but I feel I’m not progressing any more”, you sometimes hear them say. They do very well in listening and reading comprehension exercises but they still struggle with speaking and writing. It may sound a little confusing but sometimes they don’t even realize that they actually struggle. Most of them are (or consider themselves) quite fluent and the minor mistakes they make keep escaping their attention until they get some kind of explicit feedback. Also, it is when they take part in an authentic conversation, while abroad and chatting with foreigners in English, when they realize that something is not quite right. They often report back that their English is not as good and natural as they thought it was. This is most evident when they meet their Swedish friends, for example. The truth is that students from northern European countries generally speak excellent English, and they don’t seem to get stuck on the intermediate plateau (maybe they do but much earlier, i.e. at a lower age). My colleagues and I like discussing the cause of this huge difference, but this is a topic for another post. This following table illustrates the situation (note: the report focuses on a different age group but it’s not totally off topic).
The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults. This figure shows the 2011 results, but our position hasn’t changed a lot since. As I see it, the whole country is stuck on the intermediate plateau, i.e. moderate proficiency. 
 
Let’s get back to my teenage students now. I’ve observed that although they can easily ignore or trivialize the flaws in their speaking performance, they are willing to admit that writing is a skill they really need to improve. This is easier for them to acknowledge, probably because they struggle with writing in their native language too. I constantly reassure them that practice makes perfect, but also that they need lots of input before they can come up with some decent output. However, whenever I ask them to underline useful phrases, collocations, or linking words in a text, for example, I can see their reluctant expressions which implicitly say: Why should I underline this? I already know the words. It takes a lot of time to convince them that they won’t be able to use a particular collocation or a formulaic chunk of language if it’s not part of their productive inventory, even though they may already be familiar with its separate constituents. I remind them of the fact that they will probably tend to find the easiest way out; they will simply rely on what they already know, and thus their writing will lack the complexity which can be observed at higher levels of proficiency. 
At this stage, my students have mastered all the basic grammatical structures, but they still find it difficult to use them naturally and correctly. In my intermediate class, it’s not unusual to hear a fairly good student utter he don’t go or if people wouldn’t produce pollution they would …Vocabulary is another huge problem. Even if the students focused on and dutifully recorded every word or collocation they encounter in the coursebooks and texts we use (which they obviously don’t), this wouldn’t be enough; their vocabulary wouldn’t increase quickly enough to make them feel they’re progressing noticeably. Obviously, there are students who immerse themselves in English outside their regular classes; some play PC games, and they communicate in English with people from all over the world on a daily basis. Others watch films in English and listen to authentic podcasts which they choose based on their interests. Not only does their vocabulary increase dramatically but I’ve noticed that they gradually gain the characteristics of natural speech. There are a few avid readers too, which is great for language acquisition, especially for vocabulary extension. These are the students who will soon leave the intermediate plateau without even noticing any struggle. 
I believe that most of the responsibility lies with the students themselves, and the teacher’s job is to 1) motivate, 2) provide guidance, and 3) give plenty of feedback in order to prevent persistent errors from fossilizing. Fossilization is particularly dangerous in monolingual L1 classes. I can see the despair in my students’ eyes whenever I draw their attention to a basic grammar error they’ve just made. “Damn it! I’m so stupid! Did I really say this?” Yes, they did say it but since we share the same L1, we all understand one another’s distorted language, which becomes a problem. 
To sum up, the key is to constantly push students towards a higher goal. It’s vital not to let them remain complacent and lazy, which is, quite understandably, the most natural and desirable state for many of them. At this stage Demand High is the best approach I can think of. The students can communicate quite well, so it’s hard to persuade them to put more effort into conscious learning. Also, I believe it’s good to praise them for their achievements but at the same time it’s necessary to remind them that they’re capable of more. But most importantly, it’s good to provide lots of input and examples of language that is slightly above their level of proficiency. They will see that this is not the terminal station; they’ll realize there’s still a lot to achieve and if it’s done in small steps, the goal is definitely manageable. 
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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to Intermediate plateau – everyday struggles

  1. Hi Hana!
    Great post as always.My teenage students also start preparing for different types of exams. As Greece is quite exam oriented, I have noticed that when learners reach intermediate level they start stressing out about exams as well. So plateou+ exam stress=loads of challenges!

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your quick share and even a quicker comment, Joanna. 🙂 Apparently, you have a lot to deal with in your classes. I'd say that the Czech Republic is not as exam-oriented as Greece, plus the state exam my students will sit in about a year is a B1-B2 level, which is where most of them are right now. The trouble is that their motivation is not exactly boosted by this fact. But at least we don't have to stress out too much.

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  3. This is something I have been thinking about lately, and attempting to remedy in my classes. Recently I gave my students feedback on one particular grammar point they were having trouble with. I asked them to work in groups and just orally produce sentences with that point for 2 mins. Other students could correct. I also had them have small talk and focus on the particular grammar point. The point was to induce accuracy through focus and deliberate practice. It is something that skill acquisition theory and behavioral psychology says is important. Students may already have declarative knowlegde, but they lack automating skills.

    I think it's working. It only takes a few mins and can be very powerful.

    I have also read that breaks in routine are important for getting through a plateau.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Anthony. I agree that drawing students' attention to problematic grammar points is something that helps a lot at this stage of the learning process. I also like what you say about breaks in routine – I've never actually thought of this before but it makes sense. I believe it’s likely that by now our intermediate students have picked up most of the language they know incidentally, and it’s hard for them to change their approach. However, from now on learning should become more focused and intentional.

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  5. venvve says:

    Hi Hana,

    I've already said this on Twitter, but will say it again – I really like the new look of your blog!

    My students (undergrads) often seem to be stuck at an upper-intermediate plateau. 🙂 I often hear the same things you mention; students feel they've been learning the language for a long time but haven't been making noticeable progress lately. Actually, it seems like some have given up on making progress altogether and are doubtful as to what an institutional English class (part of formal education) could offer that they haven't already seen. I realize this may not be popular to say in light of Demand High, but I try to determine which students will be responsive to my motivation, guidance and feedback (very important factors as you point out) and focus on those a little more than on the ones who don't seem to care one way or the other.

    But I figure I have an excuse, since my students are no longer kids. Good luck with motivating yours past the plateau – I'm sure that you have a very high success rate given your attitude and energy, even if it does sometimes feel frustrating.

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi,Vedrana. Well, yes, I guess there are many plateaus along the way. The intermediate one just seems the most discussed these days and it’s what I encounter in my teaching context. I believe that whenever you feel stuck, even on top of the summit, you need to start moving again. It is quite understandable that some students feel stuck in a rut; it happens to me too, and it’s definitely not a pleasant state of mind. The motivation to go on often comes unexpectedly and externally, and oftentimes I have no control over it at all.

    By the way, I fully approve of your strategy; I agree that it's a good idea to focus a little more on the motivated lot (and hope that maybe the rest will join in someday :-)).

    Thanks for visiting. I’m glad you like the new design of my blog.

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